James Monroe Whitfield was an African-American poet and crusader for the emancipation of slaves during the years leading up to the Civil War. He published strident poems in the major newspapers bearing the abolitionist message: William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator and Frederick Douglass's The North Star and Frederick Douglass' Paper. His only volume of poetry, America and Other Poems, was published in 1853three years after the Compromise of 1850 (which included the Fugitive Slave Law), one year after publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and two years before publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
James Whitfield was born in 1822 in New Hampshire, but not much information is known about his early life. He worked throughout his adult life as a barber, an occupation which Douglass encouraged him to give up but which he remained in apparently because he needed a steady income and because employment opportunities for African Americans, even in the Northern states, were not good. In 1853, when America and Other Poems was published (by James S. Leavitt, of Buffalo), Whitfield was living and working in Buffalo, New York. At about that time, he also was evidently in the process of changing his attitude toward the prospect of achieving an acceptable degree of racial toleration in the United States. Whereas he had previously supported the work of Douglass, who believed in the possibility of making the United States a suitable environment for black families to live and work in, he was now changing his view to that of Martin Delany, an African-American contemporary of Whitfield and Douglass who believed that racial fairness would never be achieved in the United States and therefore advocated the emigration of African Americans to some other country, most likely in Central or South America, where they could find an environment more amenable to realizing their social and economic potential. Whitfield dedicated his book to Delany, "as a small tribute of respect for his character, admiration of his talents, and love of his principles." During the remainder of the decade, until the beginning of the Civil War, Whitfield joined with Delany in laying the groundwork for the black emigration project. In the 1860s Whitfield moved to the West Coast, where he continued to work as a barber, to crusade for the rights of African Americans, and to write poetrysome of which was published in California newspapers such as the San Francisco Elevator.
The Introduction to America and Other Poems refers to James Whitfield as "a poor colored man of this city [Buffalo], engaged in the humble, yet honorable and useful occupation of a barber. His time is constantly taken up in his business, and he writes at such intervals as he is able to realize." Whitfield thus becomes an emblem of the plight of the African American who, because of his lowly status in American society, cannot, even if he, like Whitfield, has "the fire of genius" exhibited in the poems in the volume, must sacrifice his higher possibilities to the daily need to earn a scant living. Under more favorable circumstances, the Introduction suggests, his genius "would have soared high, and have obtained no mean place in the world's estimation." Whitfield died in San Francisco in 1871.